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Trump, GOP home in on economy in final stretch

Republicans are feeling bullish about their ability to sway voters on the economy, even as experts warn about the long-term impact from the coronavirus recession.

President Trump’s handling of economic issues has typically garnered high approval numbers with voters. But the spread of COVID-19 derailed an economy that was at historic highs at the beginning of the year, with tens of millions now unemployed, swaths of businesses closed and more than 195,000 coronavirus deaths in the U.S.

But GOP senators still believe Trump, and down-ballot candidates, should focus on the economic gains made since 2017 in the final weeks of the campaign and argue that Republicans are better poised than Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden or congressional Democrats to help stabilize the country moving forward.

“I think one of the biggest, most important questions is who do you trust to reset and regrow the economy after this pandemic. And I think the president’s record and our record on that is very good,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who is up for reelection.

Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 2 Senate Republican, added the economy “is an issue that works well for the president, works well for us. I think most people trust him and trust us.”

The decision to lean into the economy comes after GOP senators had planned for months to make the economy their main pitch to voters about why they should keep the Senate in Republican hands and give Trump a second term.

Before the pandemic took hold, unemployment had fallen from 4.7 percent in January 2017 to 3.5 percent in February of this year. And census data released Tuesday found that median U.S. household income hit a record high in 2019.

But the spread of the coronavirus sent the jobless rate soaring to 14.7 percent in April, the highest since the Great Depression. It has since fallen to 8.4 percent, a level that’s higher than most incumbents have weathered going into a presidential election. Former President Obama was reelected in 2012 when the unemployment rate was 7.7 percent, but former President Ford lost in 1976 when it was 7.8 percent.

Thune, asked about the current unemployment rate, said it was “still high” but that Republicans could argue things are trending in the right direction and that there was a “clear choice” between Trump and Biden.

“If people believe that we’re kind of heading back and getting back on track where the economy is concerned, they’ll obviously take that into consideration,” Thune said, while acknowledging another coronavirus bill or a positive employment report “would all help.”

The push by GOP senators to highlight the economy comes as Trump’s campaign is going on offense in the homestretch of the campaign. They are investing at least $10 million in new cable and local broadcast ads in key battleground states and districts promoting the president’s economic policies as a resounding success for women and people of color.

In an ad that will run in the battleground states, a woman speaks directly to the camera to say Biden would be a “disaster” for the economy as it tries to recover from the coronavirus-induced lockdown.

“As a small-business owner, Trump has been the greatest president we’ve seen,” the woman says. “He’s increased jobs — I know there are more women and minorities who have been employed than ever before, and it’s just been the greatest economic environment I’ve ever seen in my lifetime.”

Voter approval of Trump’s handling of the economy has shrunk during the pandemic, according to a RealClearPolitics average of polling data. But he still retains a positive approval rating despite being in a recession, with 50.4 percent approving compared to 46.4 who disapprove. That’s an uptick from July, when his approval was stuck around 48 percent, less than a percentage point more than those who disapproved of his actions on the economy.

But there are risks to focusing on the economy. The final jobs before the election won’t be released until early October, giving Republicans and Trump only weeks to recalibrate if it brings dire economic news or shows things moving in the wrong direction.

Cornyn, asked about the upcoming jobs report, argued that voters know the recession is caused by the pandemic but “the movement is in the right direction.”

The GOP optimism comes even as there are signs that the recovery is slowing and no indication of progress on Capitol Hill toward a new round of coronavirus relief. Federal Reserve officials and economists have warned that the country needs another round of stimulus and that without it there could be serious long-term harm to the economy.

“There is pretty widespread agreement on both sides of the aisle that something needs to be done,” Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell told NPR in a recent interview. “Certainly I think more will be needed.”

Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) has said Republicans are downplaying the severity of the economic crisis through their unwillingness to spend big on another relief package. Though Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has said Republicans could go as high as $1.5 trillion, that is still significantly below Democrats’ lowest offer of $2.2 trillion.

“How many Americans think there should be no money at the height of the greatest economic crisis we have had since the Depression, the height of the greatest health crisis we have had since the Spanish flu? How many Americans think the federal government should do nothing?” Schumer said in a recent floor speech. “But a large chunk of the Republican caucus evidently seems to think that, by the Republican Leader’s own admission.”

Tags Chuck Schumer Donald Trump Donald Trump Joe Biden John Cornyn John Thune Steven Mnuchin

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